How Far Is Too Far?
Where I wonder, is the point when, just maybe, it might be advisable for the POTUS to stop trolling world leaders like a kid living in his parents’ basement?
The only way we keep liberty from degenerating into license is though the cultivation of virtue. But without self-restraint, without a sense of the dignity of one’s office, there can be no virtue.
What inspires these thoughts is a recent tweet from POTUS.
When Helping Hurts
I generally avoid partisan issues where the Church has definitively spoken. But as the pastor of a church on the Isthmus in Madison an area with a significant homeless population, I thought this editoral was a good warning for Mad City. San Francisco,
…has been conducting a three-decade experiment in what happens when society stops enforcing bourgeois norms of behavior. It has done so in the name of compassion for the homeless. The result: Street squalor and misery have increased, while government expenditures have ballooned. Yet the principles guiding city policy remain inviolate: Homelessness is a housing problem, it is involuntary, and it persists because of inadequate public spending. These propositions are readily disproved by talking to people living on the streets.
Both in American political philosophy and Orthodox moral theology, liberty isn’t moral license and the civil authority has a positive obligation to protect the public order.
Here in Madison, the city government has largely failed in its obligations. Like San Franciso, the mayor sees homelessness as a housing problem. While this is partly true, there are also often underlying mental health issues that lead to homelessness.
While the cause or causes of homelessness matter, so to do its consequences for public safety. As crime increases on the Isthmus (basically, downtown) becomes a more dangerous place to live and work. Failure to address the resulting increase in crime is a moral failure on the part of the city government.
In both San Francisco, one underlying cause of government inaction is the widespread embrace of liberty as moral license rather than as the freedom to do as we ought to do. As we see in other areas, often members of the middle and upper-middle classes, preach values they don’t actually embrace in their own lives.
Ironically, and tragically, “helping” the homeless is, again as we see in other areas, is doing more harm than good. Worse, it is actively harming the very people government officials are seeking to help.
Attack on Religious Liberty
I’ve linked below to proposed Wisconsin Senate bill 382. If it were to become law, it would eliminate “from the reporting requirement the exception for information obtained through confidential communications.”
Current law provides that a member of the clergy is not required to report information relating to suspected or threatened sexual abuse of a child that he or she receives solely through confidential communications made to him or her privately or in a confessional setting if he or she is authorized to hear or is accustomed to hearing such communications and if, under the disciplines, tenets, or traditions of his or her religion, he or she has a duty or is expected to keep those communications secret. The bill eliminates from the reporting requirement the exception for information obtained through confidential communications.
However well-intentioned, this is an unjust infringement on religious liberty and represents an attack on the life of the Church. I would encourage all Wisconsin residents to contact their state legislators and the bills co-sponsors to protest this violation of both the US and Wisconsin constitutions. The bills’ co-sponsors can be found in the attached document.
Source: Wisconsin Legislature: SB382: Bill Text
The Key is Freedom
I haven’t seen Arthur Brooks’ documentary on the free market (The Pursuit) but I have followed his work at AEI and am currently reading (and enjoying) his new book Love Your Enemies. I have some traveling to do in this next month. Hopefully, that will give me time to see Brooks’ documentary.
The takeaway for me from the review at Bleeding Heart Libertarian (see below) is the connection between human flourishing and not only economic freedom but moral freedom (virtue).
If we care for the poor, if we care for our communities, if we care for our families, children, and students, then we will defend freedom. This means having a fuller notion of freedom that just the absence of external constraints.
It also means the freedom that comes from a life of virtue of those habits of thought and action that make it possible for me to love my enemy and to forgive those who have wronged me.
Above all, freedom in this fuller sense means cultivating the virtues that help me focus not simply on what’s best for me but best for my neighbor. I wish to become a morally better person and a more productive member of society not only because this is good for me. It’s good for you as well when your neighbor is virtuous and working to make the world a better place economically, politically, culturally, and yes, morally.
Source: The Pursuit: Arthur Brooks on Capitalism, Dignity, and Opportunity for All
Enrich the Poor & Save the Planet
At National Review, Michael Brendan Dougherty writes that
…one impulse in lifestyle environmentalism is to make more basic modern commodities and goods more expensive — more like luxury goods. That way fewer of them will be produced. The externalization of costs onto the future will be disrupted by being priced in, somehow. The Prince Williams [sic] and Pete Buttigiegs of the world will likely not have to reduce their consumption. New, sin-style taxes on unclean energy and more stringent regulation of beef will be navigated rather easily by the rich. They can afford to be ‘minimalist’ and buy experiences, can’t they? Meanwhile these same measures drive the less fortunate to look for yellow vests, pitchforks, or at least the nearest populist running for office.
The ascetical impulse is, he writes, “is hard-wired in our culture.” He goes on to say that,
The West is built on the idea that human sin brought death into the world, and that it still does. We know greed is a sin. Modern abundance can be a source of dysfunction — think hoarders — and shame. America’s high-income earners are drowning in cardboard boxes from online shopping. And there is a certain plausibility to the notion that this abundance is unprecedented and its true costs will be borne by the environment or posterity itself. Most of us vaguely suspect that a little self-denial heals not just the individual soul, but the world around us.
Asceticism is hardwired into Western culture because our culture is fundamentally (if increasingly less so) Christian.
For the Scriptures and the fathers of the Church, asceticism is not an anthropological afterthought. For example, far from being a response–or what is worse, a punishment–together with procreation and labor (Genesis 1:28), fasting is part of humanity’s original vocation (2:16-17).
Marketers–economic and political–Dougherty have of late taken to exploit our ascetical inclinations. They do so not to foster human flourish or Christian holiness but for material gain and votes. They are able to do this because they “understand this desire and how poorly thought out” is our understanding of asceticism.
While “it’s quite true that thoughtlessness has costs,” the secular ascetical solutions to environmental challenges are as thoughtless as littering. It is, he says “a myth that plastic straws are a serious environmental problem, or that paper ones are a very good solution.” More importantly, “There are far better ways of reducing the amount of waste, pollution, and plastic that goes into the ocean.”
But it is morally thoughtless and politically dangerous, to tell “those less fortunate than you that the great advancements of food production, air-conditioning, and air travel will have to be withdrawn from them for their own good.”
Yes, doing so “may provide a momentary thrill for our modern-day preachers of simplicity but it is, itself, thoughtless. Fewer children, less protein for them, more deaths from heat exhaustion, and less travel isn’t a morally superior future; it’s just a parsimonious and more impoverished one.”
In fact, it is vicious and Christians and others of goodwill who care for the neighbor, especially those mired in poverty and suffering under tyrannical regimes, must challenge the Prince Harrys and Megan Markels and the Pete Buttigiegs and Sir Elton Johns of the world to rethink policies that protect their lifestyles at the expense of the poor.
Want to save the planet? Then enrich the poor.
Wisconsin Democrats want to hear your confession | Acton Institute
At Acton Commentary I discuss what I see as the problem with a bill proposed by the Democrats in the state legislator. The bill would require clergy to report any cases of child sexual abuse even if we learn about this in confession.
As I point out in the article:
As an Orthodox priest, I cannot accept any attempt by the state to re-define for its own purposes the nature of the sacrament of confession.
Bad as this is if this becomes law it will have the effect of punishing the innocent in “pursuit of the guilty.”
Finally, the proposed bill is on its face unconstitutional. The State has no right–no matter how noble the aim–to interfere in the sacramental ministry of the Church.
You can read the whole essay here: Wisconsin Democrats want to hear your confession | Acton Institute
Exposing Ideological Conceits
Few discoveries are more irritating than those which expose the pedigree of ideas. Sharp definitions and unsparing analysis would displace the veil beneath which society dissembles its divisions, would make political disputes too violent for compromise and political alliances too precarious for use, and would embitter politics with all the passions of social and religious strife.
Lord Acton, Essay on Liberty, p. 62 quoted in , p. 346
In the summary of John Marini’s, Unmasking the Administrative State: The Crisis of American Politics in the Twenty-First Century we are told that
The election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency shocked the political establishment, triggering a wave of hysteria among the bicoastal elite that may never subside. The biggest shockwaves of all, however, were felt not in the progressive parishes of Manhattan or San Francisco, but in the halls of the political elite’s cherished and oft-overlooked center of power—Washington, DC’s sprawling “administrative state”—for President Trump represented an existential threat to its denizens, who came to be known as “swamp creatures.”
Reading this on my Facebook page a friend responded that “Trump has left most of the administrative positions VACANT. Basic abuse and neglect of the administration is what he’s doing. Some genius ‘unmasking’ that is.”
While it is true that many of the administrative positions in the Trump White House are still vacant, this isn’t why Marini says that the election and subsequent administration of Donald Trump have triggered the reaction it has.
Yes, many administrative positions remain empty and yet, the Republic still stands, the economy is growing and the country as a whole seems to be chugging along. It seems that whatever else might be said for good or ill for President Trump, his administration at least raises the question that Marini explores in his book that rule by experts is over-rated.
There is no question that President Trump (who I didn’t vote for) is a divisive personality–but he also owns this about himself. And by his own admission, he is not a morally upright man. He brags about cutting “good deals” in business, is an unapologetic self-promoter and takes a great deal of pride in his sexual promiscuity.
Nevertheless, the Republic endures. When Marini says the Trump presidency has “unmasked” the pretensions of the administration, he is not saying that Trump is a good man. Nor is he saying that Trump has only lifted the veil on the ideas of the Left.
Trump’s presidency (rather than simply Trump himself) not only calls into question the (progressive) commitment to rule by experts, it also casts doubt on the (conservative) notion of rule by the virtuous. Neither expertise nor virtue is evidently what effective government requires.
Or maybe more accurately, both conservatives and progressives have flawed notions of virtue and expertise.
Both ideologies I think are too narrow and fail to take into account the complexities of governance. If we are not (as the right says) electing a Pastor-in-Chief, neither are we electing a Professor-in-Chief.
This isn’t to disparage either pastors or professors (and I am both) but to highlight that for too long we have sought to find in the president and other elected officials a reflection of our own, idealized self-image. Trump hasn’t just pulled back the curtain on only progressive conceits. He’s done the same for conservatives.
Finally, none of this suggests that (a) he is a morally good man or (b) that he did this intentionally. But did it he has I think.
As I was finishing this post, a priest friend sent me a quote from Malcolm Muggeridge that speaks to the underlying discomfort of both Christians on the Left and the Right have with not just the Trump administration but the Obama administration as well. Muggeridge writes:
I’m saying that contrary to what has been the practice and indeed dynamic of the church in the past century, that to identify Christian hopes with an earthly cause – however ostensibly noble – is disastrous, because all earthly causes end in total disappointment.
Black balloons for the lost orphans
My article about the Hogar Rafael Ayu and Holy Trinity Orthodox Monastery in Guatemala was just published by the Acton Institute. Here’s the first paragraph:
The protesters were mostly high school and university students. They carried black balloons, dozens of them – one for each teenaged orphaned girl who died while in police custody in a March 2017 schoolroom fire. Walking in solidarity with the hundreds of other protesters down Guatemala City’s 6A Calle was a small group of Serbian Orthodox Christian nuns. The abbess of the monastery, Madre Inés, told me that she and the nuns of Holy Trinity Orthodox Monastery in Villa Nueva, Guatemala came to the crowded Cons
You can read the rest here: Black balloons for the lost orphans | Acton Institute
Carpentry students at the Municipality Workshop School. Photo by Melanie Dent
Orthodox Witness and the Four Cities of the West
Writing at National Review, Michael Gibson, a co-founder of 1517 Fund, writes about the need for a fuller exploration of Western civilization. His observation offers some interesting insights for Orthodox Christians interested in political theology and the Church’s witness in the Public Square.
We must balance, Gibson argues, the Roman Empire’s tendency for “universalism” with the virtues embodied in the other great cities (and so cultures) of Western civilization: Athens, London, and ultimately, Jerusalem.
“For conservatives and libertarians to save the West,” he writes, they “must return to its roots. There is more to the West than Rome. We must return to London, Athens, and Jerusalem.”
As a practical matter “This will involve channeling our traditions of exploration, the quick Greek intelligence pushing competition among diverse Greek city-states, the dynamism unlocked by the common law of London paired with the idea of progress, and the heroic revelations and commitments of Jerusalem.”
First, Athens. By ancient accounts, Aristotle compiled some 170 constitutions of city-states to write his Politics. Competition was not reserved for the Olympics; it pervaded all activities. It drove advances in drama, philosophy, science, and mathematics. “The West” is too homogeneous a whole. If nations truly differ, their peoples can explore without fear of being outlawed by universal law. If universities truly differ, research programs will chart new courses into the unknown.
London: The rule of law is one of the strongest factors in the origin and causes of the wealth of nations. But it’s not sufficient as an explanation. According to the economist Deirdre McCloskey, the industrial revolution started in England and nowhere else for a reason — its pervasive spirit of tinkering and invention, of improving one’s lot through trade, of prudence matched by risk — all this led to the enrichment of the world.
Lastly, Jerusalem. The Judeo-Christian theory of truth contrasts with the Greek. While scientific theories describe universal truths that hold for all time, the truths of Jerusalem are specific to a people, to a time, to a place. The theme is most powerfully expressed by the story of Abraham, in which God’s command to Abraham defies public reason. If we are to resist the madness of crowds, we need to mark our faith in independent judgment as sacred.
He concludes with a call for a diversity of “political order.” Rather than governments “in the mold of a single empire, he calls for “a myriad of independent states — monarchies, republics, democracies, something altogether new — competing to bring out the best in each other and their members.”
Such diversity of communities is central to Orthodox spirituality. While they share an underlying dogmatic, liturgical and ascetical unity, local (i.e., national) Orthodox Churches have their own ethos or flavor. A visitor to any Orthodox parish in America is unlikely to confuse a Greek parish for a Russian or either for a Serbian, Antiochian or Ukrainian.
In fact, this diversity among Orthodox parishes can be so striking as to cause a visitor to wonder if these communities are all part of the same Church. This reflects not only our concrete differences but also the uncritical reduction of unity to uniformity.
The political philosophy, to return to Gibson, rooted in Athens, London, Jerusalem and Rome is a natural fit–or at least a not uneasy ally–with Orthodox Christian anthropology and sociology.
Friendship Not Greed
In other words, it’s not the case that market capitalism requires or generates loveless people. More like the contrary. Markets and even the much-maligned corporations encourage friendships wider and deeper than the atomism of a full-blow socialist regime or the claustrophobic, murderous atmosphere of a “traditional” village. Modern capitalist life is love-saturated. Olden life was not loving; communitarian life was not; and actually existing socialist life decidedly was not. No one dependent on a distant god such as Gosplan or Tradition can feel safe. Paradoxically, a market linked so obviously to our individual projects make us safer and more loving.
Deirdre N. McCloskey (2006)ook, The Bourgeois Virtues, p. 138